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Time ripe for farmers to go political

Unless they control decision making, farmers will always be treated as a vote bank. This has to change

Time ripe for farmers to go political
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Time ripe for farmers to go political

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This change in thinking, where farmers emerge at the centre stage of the economic growth design, can only happen when farmers themselves will redesign the economic paradigm. Despite all the pre-poll claims and promises, political parties of all hues have actually failed to reverse the economic design

The massive show of strength at the Muzaffarnagar Kisan Mahapanchayat on Sunday has brought back the pressure on the government to repeal the contentious central farm laws. Nine months after protesting farmers began demonstrating at the borders of New Delhi, the record-breaking turnout at the Uttar Pradesh rally will surely act as a booster dose.

That the mega event will have socio-political fallout with a message for unity among various caste configurations being seen as a tilting factor in the forthcoming elections to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly in February-March 2022, it also signals a renewed resolve by protesting farmers to take the battle pan-India against what they perceive as a policy shift towards a 'corporate take-over of agriculture'.

The unprecedented distress that prevails in agriculture, and the ill-effects of leaving farmers and farming in the hands of private markets, is what infuriates the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) leading the farmers' protests. Frustrated at the prolonged stalemate in negotiations, with no deliberations taking place since the fag end of January, SKM has shifted the focus of the agitation to severely impact where it matters most – electoral outcomes. Considering that Uttar Pradesh is where the political fortunes are written and rewritten, the call is for the rural communities to vote against the ruling dispensation.

Whether it upsets the BJP's winning calculations in the forthcoming elections only time will tell. But the call for 'Mission Uttar Pradesh' and 'Mission Uttarakhand' – since both the states are going to elections, along with Punjab – is sure to create fears of poll prospects going awry. Howsoever, be a defiant public stand, this is something no political party will like to take chances with, and that is what makes protesting farmers hopeful. Nevertheless, building pressure in a peaceful manner is what matters in a democracy, and farmers are only beginning to learn to flex their political muscles.

After all, with nearly 50 per cent of the country's population engaged in farming, the growing realisation among farmers that they alone constitute the largest political constituency, if at all it happens to make a dent, will certainly impact the political future of the country. While many believe that farmers should remain apolitical, and for obvious reasons, I feel the time is ripe for farmers to go political. Unless they control decision making, farmers will always be treated as a vote bank. This has to change.

And this change in thinking, where farmers emerge at the centre stage of the economic growth design, can only happen when farmers themselves will redesign the economic paradigm. Despite all the pre-poll claims and promises, political parties of all hues have actually failed to reverse the economic design – that actually sucks income from the bottom of the pyramid to the top – so as to ensure that the benefits of growth reaches the farmers and farm workers, and in turn revitalises the rural economy. Farmers are considered to be burden on the society, and all efforts are to offload the burden as quickly as possible. Farm incomes and rural wages have been deliberately kept low so as to increase urban migration.

In addition to the call to withdraw the central laws, the demand to make the Minimum Support Price (MSP) a legal right for farmers, meaning that no trading be allowed below that price range, has to be seen as a corrective measure emancipating farmers from the clutches of a 'farm-to-fork' value chain design that actually ends up exploiting the farming community. Let me explain. The $210 billion confectionary industry, of which chocolate is a dominant segment, is often talked about as an illustrious example of how profitable a food value chain can be.

But what is not talked about is how the market-drive model that has brought huge profits to the chocolate industry actually is based on exploiting the small cocoa farmers. According to the biennial Cocoa Barometer 2020 study, a majority of the cocoa farmers in Western Africa have been driven to acute poverty with the average daily income being just around $ 1.30 (Rs 100). Imagine the economic gains for the cocoa growers, and the vibrant livelihoods it would have created, if only the chocolate industry was made to provide the cocoa growers with a guaranteed MSP. Economists and policy makers can go on harping on the need to enhance competition to deliver a better price. But let us not forget that several multi-nationals are in the chocolate business, and all the marketing principles they claim to have been applied have failed to pull the primary growers out of abject poverty.

Similarly, the need to ensure a guaranteed price for other food crops is also an economic necessity. Considering that nowhere in the world have free markets helped prop up farm incomes, a point I have repeatedly made, what the protesting farmers are therefore demanding actually has international ramifications. All the catchy phrases used to justify the need to push robust private markets in the name of enhancing competition, improving efficiency leading to price discovery have failed to translate into higher incomes for farmers.

To reverse this economic design, which is biased against the primary producer, the need is for the farmers to take another step towards the political centre stage. Although, it requires a serious campaign to educate a heterogeneous farming population, divided deeply in caste considerations and religious and political ideologies, to emerge out of the vote bank mindset, but I think the challenge is worth taking. Intervening in the forthcoming Assembly elections may be the first step, but I feel at some stage in the immediate near future the farmers must take a direct leap into active politics. After all, how long can farmers go on protesting on the streets, facing water cannons and lathi-charge at times, for seeking economic parity? It is therefore high time farmers took decision making in their own hands.

(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)

Devinder Sharma
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